Shabbat. 7 A.M. At the checkpoint at the northern entrance to Ramallah. Four soldiers are checking cars. It's a checkpoint used only by diplomats, Palestinian VIPs, ambulances, UN vehicles and various international humanitarian organizations.
Passage is forbidden to "ordinary" pedestrians from neighboring villages heading to Ramallah and back. Not even people who live around the corner are allowed through. Two young women are standing on the northern side of the checkpoint, before the entrance to Ramallah. They are waiting. On the southern side of the checkpoint, an elderly woman is sitting in a wheelchair. Near her is a bewildered young woman. From a short conversation with her, it becomes apparent that the woman in the wheelchair receives dialysis treatment in a Ramallah hospital. One of the young women waiting on the other side of the checkpoint is her daughter. The young woman beside the daughter is a kidney patient, also a regular at the Ramallah hospital. The young bewildered woman is the sister of the elderly woman in the wheelchair. "The soldiers don't understand Arabic," she explains.
The four come from the same village. It's only by chance that the healthy sister pushed her elderly sister's wheelchair to the checkpoint, so the soldiers allowed her through while preventing the other two young women from passing. "We can't let the entire village through," said one of the soldiers. They were surprised to hear that there's another ailing woman. They said such "ordinary pedestrians" aren't allowed through. The young women said they go through the checkpoint on foot, with the elderly woman, once every two days, equipped with letters from the hospital.
An ambulance driver finally shows up and confirms he picks up the women every other day. He negotiates with the soldiers and finally, they allow the daughter of the woman in the wheelchair and the kidney patient through. But they prevent the healthy sister from passing through.
A 10-year-old boy arrives on the scene from the direction of Ramallah, carrying a large pack on his back. His school, he said, is north of the checkpoint, in Kafr Bitin. The ambulance driver's lobbying doesn't help. The soldiers won't let the boy through and, frightened, he backs away.
If the women from Makhsom Watch (Checkpoint Watch), a voluntary group that sends monitors to observe and take notes at checkpoints, were present, would they have succeeded in persuading the soldiers to let the boy and the healthy sister through? They don't usually go to this checkpoint. Sometimes, at other checkpoints they manage to bring some measure of human judgment into the frequently changing rules and interpretations of the rules. Sometimes their mere presence stops the soldiers from delaying dozens of people and cars for long hours for no operational reason.
Frequently, they see how dozens of people manage to "steal" through the checkpoints. Usually these are young and agile, but desperate adults, and daring children also try. Last week, just a telephone call from the Makhsom Watch activists to a Jerusalem hospital made the soldiers allow a couple to pass through a checkpoint to reach Jerusalem, where they were to visit their daughter in hospital. Sometimes an appeal by the activists to the duty officer helps. He instructs the soldiers to hand back the ID cards to the dozens of people whom the soldiers have been delaying for no reason.
Many of the activists in Makhsom Watch emphasize their purpose is not to make the occupation more bearable, but to make Israelis aware of it and of the fact that the checkpoints and blockades don't prevent the suicide bombers from reaching Jerusalem, but do increase the sense of outrage and disgust against Israelis in the general Palestinian population. But often their presence, and sometimes their intervention, moderate the brutal scenes and shorten the hours of humiliation. Apparently more than they manage to reach the Israeli public, they enable Palestinians to find out that there are "other Israelis." In that sense, their contribution to a future of sane relations between nations is greater than their immediate contribution to the debate inside Israel about the occupation and its dangers. As one Palestinian school principal from a nearby village, who goes through humiliation and harassment at the checkpoint on a daily basis, said, "Knowing there are Israelis experiencing what we experience, if only for a few hours, eases my suffering and gives me some hope for a different future."
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